A new precedent? Architect sentenced to jail for role in fire that killed a firefighter

6 thoughts on “A new precedent? Architect sentenced to jail for role in fire that killed a firefighter”

  1. Brian, it is unfortunate the latest article on this matter repeats the improper identification of Becker as “Architect”. He is not – as you stated – an Architect in California, nor elsewhere in the US. Articles about him should not, therefore, refer to him as one, or suggest that he acted in that professional capacity in this catastrophic endeavor. The continued assertion that Becker’s case has anything to do with Architects – or that criminal charges were brought against an Architect are simply inaccurate. I have even recently seen an article suggesting that because of this decision Architects in general will become a more frequent target of criminal charges.

    Yes, Becker was trained and credentialed as an Architect in Germany. That is as far as it goes. He designed and supervised the work at his house as a private owner/builder (which, in California, anyone can do). Although he engaged contractors to do some work pursuant to permits (and again, as you noted, has numerous conflicts with inspectors), the illegal fireplaces were installed after the permitted work had concluded. Therefore, city inspectors had no knowledge of the fireplace work. This was not ‘accidental’.

    Becker, as someone with a background in design and construction, is legally presumed to have superior knowledge of applicable law (as compared with the average lay property owner). He understood what the codes required – and what they did not. He intentionally concealed from the city what he knew was illegal work, and supervised the work personally. Ultimately, his grossly negligent conduct resulted in the death of a first responder.

    This same behavior occurs with great regularity because homeowners do not fully understand why our code/permit/inspection system exists in the first place – and feel free to ignore requirements for compliance. Licensed contractors often do work without permits as well. Additionally, we have a significant problem in California (and elsewhere) with unlicensed individuals who perform work without permits – and without any appropriate training or expertise. Unfortunately, in most instances, even when this behavior is uncovered, the penalties meted out by the contractor’s board are not significant enough to act as an effective deterrent. Rarely is an owner/builder prosecuted – more often the transgressor is just asked by the local Building Official to pull a permit and get inspections going forward (so there is only the lightest of ‘penalties’ involved).

    The sentence Becker just received follows at least a bit in the same mold. Becker was not tried – he plead guilty. Most likely this was because he understood that if he was tried by a jury the prosecutor would have little trouble demonstrating his complete disregard for the codes and permit process – and that the hazard he created was both predictable and foreseeable. Had he gone to trial it is entirely possible he would have received a harsher sentence. In my opinion, the penalty he received does not reflect that his crime resulted in a death.

    As it now stands, he will serve a short time in jail and return to Germany, where he will probably not be permanently stained by his behavior in California.

    The family of the slain firefighter, on the other hand, will suffer his loss for their lifetimes. Now that Becker has plead guilty, I would not be surprised if that family now files a separate civil wrongful death suit. If they do I wish them all success (if it could be termed such).

    A separate unfortunate result of Becker’s criminal behavior is that numerous articles have been appearing since 2011 (and continue to appear) that tarnish all Architects by association – simply because Becker is incorrectly referred to as one.

    1. Thank you for your insight, Howard. I agree with your sentiment.

      There are two logical possibilities:

      1. Becker, an accomplished architect, and therefore one who is expected to adhere to an established standard of care, intentionally or willfully violated those standards of care.

      2. Becker, despite being an accomplished architect, was incompetent or for whatever reason, incapable of understanding basic life-safety considerations and the direct communications of a material supplier.

      As with the MGM fire in Las Vegas, (followed closely by the Hilton fire), there are lessons to be learned here that every architect, engineer and contractor should be aware of.

      What this case really speaks to me about is the issue of arrogance. I am sure that both you and I have been involved on cases where an architect’s arrogance trumped common sense and/or code. Hopefully this case will serve as a reminder of the cost of such extreme arrogance and narcissism.

  2. http://www.cab.ca.gov/pdf/publications/architects_practice_act_2011.pdf

    Please refer to the California Architect’s Practice act in the Link above . This individual is not an architect under the laws of the State of California. This is an “unlicensed individual” and this case cannot form any sort of precedence for jailing “real” architects.

    Most “real” architects have undergone rigorous U.S. University training, have passed the Architect’s Registration exam, and are well versed in the codes and would never have occupied a house full of code violations.

    Please get your terminology straight before publishing articles that unfairly target the mis-deeds of ordinary “non-architect” citizens or in this case of non-architect “resident-aliens”.


    1. Thanks, Jaya. I am aware of what terminology I used, but I appreciate your admonishment, as it seems to come from a very passionate and heartfelt place.

      As I stated in my article, I’ll leave the actual legal commentary to people that, like architects, are licensed to practice that profession having been trained to do so and passed certain exams and adhere to a certain standard of professional conduct.

      Regarding the issue of precedence, it wasn’t me who first raised that concern. Actually, I learned about this case from an insurance carrier that often provides professional liability coverage to design professionals. Attorneys that also regularly represent design professionals have raised similar alarms.

      Are you an architect yourself? The only “Jaya Cluny” that I am able to find online is listed as working for a PR firm. I personally am not an architect, although I have worked with and for numerous architects. In fact, I worked for nearly 11 years at a firm that specialized in offering expert witness testimony on architectural standard of care. We were even tasked with providing analysis of issues such as “willful misconduct,” and “gross negligence” on more than a few cases involving architects.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  3. I am a licensed architect in California. This case has nothing to do with licensed architects and our liability. I also have had buildings inspected by this City building inspector, and have a high regard for him.

    The German homeowner — new to Los Angeles– was only able to obtain a building permit at all because his structural engineer signed and stamped the drawings. Structural engineers are not knowledgeable about fire safety issues, and there is a flaw in the permit process that this case has uncovered.

    Los Angeles also allows an “owner/builder” like this German man to construct a home in lieu of a General Contractor. The Owner/Builder has to sign a long/long form at the Building department with each permit obtained (a house like this requires 8 or 10) agreeing to use licensed subcontractors; to employ no uninsured workmen; and to accept liability for losses incurred due to latent defects in the construction!

    Thus this homeowner purposefully skipped 2 processes which on a regular basis help to ensure public safety. These processes help architects do what we do well, in collaboration with an engineering, inspection, and construction team. This man purposefully disregarded our system through hubris.

    The court reports show clear intent in his disregard for life safety, and total ignorance of the complexity of gas appliances/fireplaces.

    I would have put him in jail for life.

    The house was quickly rebuilt, and rumor has it he pulled out the fire sprinklers yet again.

    1. Fran,

      First of all, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to add your perspective. If you notice in the comment above yours, I stated that while Herr Becker is not a licensed architect in the state of California, he was a licensed architect in Germany. There is a concept in law known as willful negligence. I’m not an attorney, but have been directed by attorneys to evaluate willful negligence related to both architectural errors/omissions and construction defects. Even though the owner/builder was not licensed here, he absolutely should have known better.

      Again, it was not I who advanced the idea that this could set a precedent. A prominent law firm whose California practice specializes in representing architects and engineers promoted that notion in a newsletter that they sent out to their architectural clients. You’d have to ask them why they decided to characterize this case in that regard.

      You mention that the owner/builder “was only able to obtain a building permit at all because his structural engineer signed and stamped the drawings.” Perhaps the reason the law firm brought up the issue of precedent has nothing to do with architects, and instead was referring to the liability of the structural engineer.

      Either way, we are both on the same page that the actions of this man cannot be justified and place the life and safety of others in jeopardy.

      Thanks again for stopping by.

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